After effectively stealing the show in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland returns as Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Against the odds this reboot of the franchise manages to take everything exhilarating and ebullient about Holland’s initial appearance and launch Spidey’s new adventures with heart and style.
Spider-Man has long been my favorite super-hero, and I have to admit that I’ve never thought any of his cinematic exploits really captured him in the way I read him in the comics. Sam Raimi’s trilogy were terrific films that nailed much of the essence of spider-Man, but accentuated the existential angst of the character above any freewheeling sense of fun. Raimi and Tobey Maguire might have captured the darker and more emotional story of Peter Parker and his sacrifices, but those films rarely showed us how much fun Spider-Man could be. Then Amazing Spider-Man came along. It and its sequel might have had a greater sense of fun and wit to the character of Spider-Man, but they screwed up pretty much everything else, and still chose to put angst and tragedy at the core of Peter.
Part of what makes Spider-Man: Homecoming so much fun is that is chooses to dial way back on the angsty qualities in favor of presenting us with the story of a Peter Parker struggling with balancing the thrill of being Spider-Man, and his brash over-confidence, with his other life as a regular high-school kid. When the film is at its most entertaining and fresh is when it focuses on Peter as an actual teenager, that period in your life when you are simultaneously brash and totally self-conscious. The film opens as Peter, still reeling from his actions in Captain America: Civil War, is putting all his energy into being Spider-Man in an attempt to prove himself to his mentor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, doing his Tony Stark thing as enjoyably as he always does). Peter’s placed all his chips on this one path, and he’s frustrated at Stark’s treatment of him as the high-school sophomore that he actually is.
“Stay close to the ground,” Stark advises Peter, and the heart of this movie comes from Peter’s bristling at that wise advice, even as the film’s strengths also come from that more narrow focus. There’s no world-shattering threat, no operatic emotional conflict as the center of this movie. Part of what makes it so refreshing is that, unlike most recent Marvel films, Spider-Man: Homecoming deliberately scales the action down, keeping the stakes vitally important for Peter and the other characters, but not apocalyptic. Not having Spider-Man facing off against yet another glowing energy wave in the sky or infinity stone winds up being more refreshing than you’d think, and the lower stakes allow the tone of the film to stay nimble and light. It offers a chance to illustrate how slipshod this rookie Spider-Man is at this point. By making him more eager than effective, the movie accentuates Peter’s greatest asset; the kid’s got heart.
And in all the high school scenes, that’s when we see the aspects of Spider-Man that made him one of the great characters in all of comics. Peter Parker may be Spider-Man, but what makes him resonate are the ways normal everyday problems in his life are complicated by his heroic alter-ego. Spider-Man can save the day with his webs and his one-liners, but it’ll often mean Peter Parker is letting down his family, his friends, and blowing his chances at getting what he really wants. The deftness of Spider-Man: Homecoming is how it shows us this without piling on the tragedy. When the film isn’t actively giving you super-heroics, it’s very much a high school comedy, and it winds up being a good one. Part of that comes from the casting, with all of the “kids” in the film giving terrific performances. The standout is Peter’s best friend Ned, played by Jacob Batalon. Ned behaves exactly as a lot of people in the audience would if they suddenly found out their best friend was a super-hero, and his and Holland’s byplay deliver some of the best moments in Spider-Man: Homecoming. but I also appreciated the way in which Batalon acts as Peter’s sense of caution, having his buddy’s back but not letting him off the hook.
But just because this Sony/Marvel co-production scales back the canvas for a more intimate adventure, that doesn’t mean it skimps on villains. Early on in the film we’re introduced to Adrian Toomes (a pitch-perfect Michael Keaton), owner/operator of a Salvage crew who find himself screwed out of a big contract cleaning up after super-powered battles when Tony Stark and the Government choose to do the clean-up themselves. Toomes and his crew then decide to go their own way, and spend years stealing alien tech from various sources and selling them to criminals. We watch Toomes go from frustrated blue collar businessman to ruthless criminal over the course of the film, and one of the more interesting ideas at the heart of the movie is this feeling of the little guy getting screwed by big business, and Toomes definitely has a point. He’s one of the more interesting villains we’ve seen in a Marvel-related film, as effective and compelling antagonists with well-defined motives have been a stumbling block for them in the past. Here we don’t get that problem, and Keaton can alternate between being chilling and ruthless to charming and relatable with ease.
The rest of the cast, from Donald Glover, Bokeem Woodbine, Jon Favreau and the always great Marisa Tomei on the adult side to Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori and Zendaya on the kids side, are all great too. There’s been a bit of push back in some quarters because of the ethnically diverse nature of the cast, but that is a ridiculous concern. If you stopped by a high school in Queens tomorrow, I’m willing to be the school would look exactly like the one you see in this film, so I’m not sure what the complaint is about. Yes, Flash Thompson and Liz Allen were white in the original comics, but in case you did;t notice everyone in those comics were white. It was 1963, and there is absolutely no earthly reason to stick to that when launching the film series in 2017.
But in the end this movie belongs to Tom Holland. The whole thing would sink or swim base don whether he could carry a whole film. Spider-Man: Homecoming proves Spidey is in good hands. Holland embodies Peter Parker and Spider-Man so deftly, with an eager charm that is pretty hard to resist. He is believable both as a boy genius and a dumb kid, as a hero with more heart than sense perhaps, but on the road to great things. If his debut in Civil War was memorable, his performance here made us sign on to follow him through what I’m sure are going to be a ton of future films, both in his own franchise and as part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Director Jon Watts (“Cop Car”) absolutely nails the tone of the film, and pulls off the teen comedy touches as well as he handles the action set pieces, which are thrilling and all the more effective because he works hard to make Peter Parker into a real guy so we’re invested in him as more than just an archetype. The script is remarkably cohesive given the vast array of writers credited with working on it, including Watts himself. The script has to do a lot, including tell a coherent story, and the fact that it does this while introducing Peter’s world and supporting characters and merging teen comedy with super-hero adventure is no mean feat. Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s chief job is to make you as a viewer eager to dive back into this universe, and by keeping things scaled down, intimate and above all, tons of fun, it leaves you eager for more of this friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. 9/10